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A City to Love

Today we continue our series of posts from the 2015-16 Runstad Center Affiliate Fellows.
On September 27th the Fellows will be presenting their research from their trip to Auckland, New Zealand last spring, and what they discovered about how this innovative city manages public right of way. 

Imagine a city where industry, economics and the private sector are not demonized. Where the public sector, regulations and plans are not demonized. What about a situation where the two are partners with critical capabilities, where economics and quality of life are partners in creating a livable resilient place – where each is valued and used in support of the larger whole. Talk about a powerhouse!



Tuesday, September 27, 2016
6:00-8:00 pm

Impact HUB
220 2nd Ave South
Seattle, WA 98104

Refreshments will be served, program to begin at 6:30 p.m.


Seattle Mass Timber Tower, a new study by Callison RTKL

Peter Orser was asked to write a forward for a recent feasibility study conducted by Callison RTKL. This study, Seattle Mass Timber Tower, focuses on mass timber construction (MTC) and the possibility of using MTC for a high rise. Mass timber is a cost effective, energy efficient, renewable material of excellent structural strength that demonstrates high fire resistance. MTC has been used successfully in Europe and British Columbia, but it is a relative newcomer to US building practices. Additionally, MTC structures in the US to date have been limited to 6-10 story buildings. Whether or not MTC can be used for buildings in the 30-40 story range has yet to be fully vetted. As the former CEO of Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Company and as the Director of the Runstad Center, Peter recognizes the importance of investing in, researching and discussing technologies that have the potential of delivering sustainable solutions to the urban growth challenges we face. Callison RTKL’s analysis, now publicly available, examines the possibility of utilizing MTC for high rise construction from design, sustainability, affordability, safety and construction perspectives. The full study can be found here.

Washington State Condominium Report released today

The Runstad Center’s Washington State Condominium Report was released today.  MSRE student, Center researcher, and author of the report David Leon shares his thoughts…

The City of Seattle has been experiencing unprecedented population and economic growth over the last five years. As the city’s population has increased and the number of high-paying jobs has grown, prices for housing have increased significantly.  Condominium development could provide an affordable in-city option for new housing.  At present, condominiums are not being built in sufficient numbers to meet demand, and those that are being built are being sold at prices that are beyond the means of the average-income individual.  Reasons for this dynamic include financing and capital markets, insurance coverage, and to some degree, legal liability for condominium developers.  This paper examines the current state of the housing market in Seattle, focusing on construction of new condominiums, with comparisons to six other Western cities.  The paper then examines elements of the Washington Condominium Act that may bear on the heightened liability for condominium builders, and suggests some options for reducing the liability, after comparison to four other states and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Changes to the Washington Condominium Act may be necessary but not sufficient conditions for the building of more affordable condominium units in Seattle.  Financial incentives may be required to create the conditions for more affordable condominiums.  For the market to be incentivized to build more affordable condominiums without public subsidy, economic opportunity for builders must offset the greater perceived risks and inefficiencies of smaller scale building through lower costs.  Insurance costs and the risk of litigation are factors that, if mitigated, can contribute to tipping the scale toward the delivery of more affordable for-sale condominium product.

Condo Sales Graph

Sales price tranches for Seattle new condominium sales, 2010-2015.

The Center’s findings were discussed further with UW Today.  Click here for the full report.

Lessons for Seattle from San Francisco

Several of our MSRE students recently visited San Francisco for the ULI Fall Meeting.  David Leon shares his thoughts on the changes and challenges in that city, and how they compare to the ones we are facing here in Seattle. Thanks, David!

A former colleague once said to me Seattle reminded him of San Francisco 15 years ago.  I find that there are many parallels: both cities are land-constrained, surrounded by beautiful scenery, tech-industry hubs, and are facing affordability and livability issues in housing as their growth cycles compound.

At the ULI Annual Conference earlier this month in San Francisco, both walking around and in conference sessions, I noticed many changes that may be coming to Seattle.  San Francisco’s waterfront highway has already come down, and the industrial waterfront has been transformed into tourist, office, and retail space.  Oakland, the blue-collar city across the bay, is now the regional shipping and industrial port.  Seattle’s viaduct will be gone soon, and a similar transformation could happen here, with the seaports of Seattle and Tacoma recently combining.

San Francisco has long been facing the challenge of homelessness and housing affordability.  I remember when I was in college in the late 1990’s walking along sections of Market Street where every alcove and doorway was occupied by somebody in their sleeping bag.  This time, I saw only a few people sleeping on the street.  Maybe they just moved to the park, but I also heard conference presenters talking about building micro-apartments downtown for formerly homeless people.  One could hope that Seattle would adopt a similar solution in addition to, or rather than, supporting the open-air encampments that currently exist in various locations around town.

Micro units also seemed to be the path to greater affordability, with developer Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests presenting on how both profitability and affordability improve when multi-family units are built smaller, with parking eliminated from buildings.  Professor Carol Galante of U.C. Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innnovation presented on how trends show more and more people moving into urban centers, with rental units as the fastest growing segment of the housing market.  This despite 70% of U.S. housing stock being single-family and zoned as such.  Her prediction was for greater density in urban centers, and assisted by government intervention like reducing the mortgage interest deduction, or not taxing accessory dwelling units.

The most impressive project presented at the conference was the Transbay Transit Center.  This is a massive effort to build out a multi-modal downtown transit center connecting the cities around the Bay Area via rapid transit, as well as the train to Los Angeles.  The transit center features a shopping mall as well as a large park on top of the roof.  The Transbay Joint Powers Authority was able to build with money from selling off surrounding land to developers, who are building what will be some of the largest office and multi-family buildings in the city, effectively extending the city’s skyline to the south of the Oakland Bay Bridge.  The tallest of these structures, the Salesforce building, would be the tallest in the city.

Another noteworthy presentation included a case study of Twitter’s new headquarters at Market Square, a renovated space that transformed an older building to suit the needs of the new tech economy.  And following up on that concept, several presenters invited us to imagine the future of a city that does not depend on workers going to any particular place to get work done, where nobody needs to own cars because cars would drive themselves and be available on demand, and where goods are bought and sold online in a global marketplace that need less retail spaces and more warehouses.

It was a very inspiring conference and a great trip.  How these trends and ideas might come to Seattle will of course be a matter of current trends in affordability, as well as overall market forces.  But ultimately any local transitions will be a test of whether there is sufficient popular will to move forward toward a denser, more transit-and-tech oriented city.


The Ferry Building


Breakfast with Runstad Center board members


View of Market Street and the palace hotel from NW ULI reception at One Kearny


Mural near Civic Center


TransAmerica Building

Commoning the community in Brazil

We continue our series of blog posts from our Runstad Center Affiliate Fellows class of 2015, who recently traveled to Santiago, Chile, and Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil. Recently, Thaisa Way took us for a look at the yards and courtyards of Santiago.  Here, she explores the idea of “commoning the community” in a favela, Vidigal in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.


On the same day that Maiko, Kate, Jose, and I headed to the favela community of Vidigal, I read about the competition in London to find spaces that could be “commoned” as in making them collective social spaces in the urban fabric. This same idea is being envisioned within the favela of Vidigal as residents look to create collective action to create shared spaces in their urban landscape. It is noteworthy that the city of Rio and many in Brazil speak of urbanizing the slums as a means to bring city services of water, electricity, sewage and transportation to the communities. Commoning is another form of urbanization- building on the potential of shared spaces to build community in dense and underserved neighborhoods.


In Vidigal we met with architect Guto Grasien, who had grown up in the community and returned to live and to design for public good. With him was Maria (a dancer and choreographer) and Sebastian (VP for the Vidigal Community) as well as an artist and a film maker, all residents of the community. They showed us a small model roof garden that shaded a bus stop for residents. On the roof was a mixture of hay and soil that was used to grow medicinal and healing plants. The only irrigation is rain water. The roof garden, an idea that Guto initiated, was planned and planted with participants from the local public schools- 25 elementary students under the leadership of a few community members including Grassa, a healing/ medicine woman in the community. The plants are harvested by Grassa, who has with a few other women opened a small souvenir shop for all the foreigners touring the favela, and a small café upstairs that serves green juice – a healthy mixture of wheat grass, cabbage, celery, apples, and other greens. The idea is to introduce a healthy drink, easy to enjoy, as a means of introducing health and nutrition as a topic of discussion. Further the gardens introduce the idea of city nature as a beneficial and productive part of the urban fabric. Thus the roof garden, the store, the café, the garden all are a form of commoning.


The community, like most favelas in Rio, is on a very steep hillside- the flat lands by the bay and ocean are generally filled with more expensive housing, from middle to upper class housing and commercial strips- the beach itself a common landscape, open and used by the full public. Back to the favela- as they are on steep hillsides, while roads for cars, motorcycles, and infrastructure are useful, stairways are the primary shared circulation infrastructure- they wind between houses, roads, and views- yes precarious but also pragmatic, serving as critical contributors to the public realm.


Also there we were welcomed into a remarkable garden that was once a city site deemed to become an ecological park. However, the city abandoned the project and neighbors started to use it as a garbage dump. Other community members imagined doing the garden on their own and started to clean the area for garden beds. They creatively found materials to use including car and bike tires that were dug into the hillside to hold the soil in place and to provide planting beds. Plants are gathered from the nearby forests and hillsides and the place is a bit of paradise within the urban landscape. It was a respite, it was a place of hope and production- but it was even more a place where urban nature was expressed creatively, inspirationally, and poetically.


While many focus on the ways in which the city and state appear to have abandoned the poor in Brazil – and this is true when one considers the availability of clean water, sewage treatment, and many other basic services – what we saw and heard in Vidigal was also the resilience of communities to find ways to build a robust public realm. It was a good learning experience for us, as it is so much easier to just bemoan the irresponsible actions of government and leaders.

Washington housing market remains strong in 1st quarter of 2015

Washington state’s housing market was strong in the first quarter of 2015, with both sales and new building permits up compared with a year ago and the market remaining largely affordable, according to a new report from the Washington Center for Real Estate Research here at the Runstad Center.  Housing affordability for all buyers statewide continued to rise in the first quarter; however, affordability varied widely across the state.

The Center’s findings were discussed further with UW Today.

Here’s a preview of the data, in our snapshot for Q1 2015.  The full report, now available to subscribers, will be posted online when the third quarter report snapshot is released.  If you’d like to become a subscriber, please contact

Runstad Affiliate Fellow authors new book

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The Runstad Center congratulates Thaisa Way, whose new book, “The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design” was recently published by University of Washington Press.  UW Today picked up the story and talked with Thaisa about Rich Haag, his legacy, and how his work demonstrates that thoughtful design of the public realm – parks, plazas, streets, and campuses – has a critical impact on our society.

Thaisa is a 2015 Runstad Affiliate Fellow, who recently returned with her cohorts from a trip to South America, examining the urban landscape in the cities of Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, and Curitiba.

Public vs. private landscapes in Santiago

We continue our series of blog posts from our Runstad Center Affiliate Fellows class of 2015, who recently traveled to Santiago, Chile, and Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil. Recently, Thaisa Way explored the important role of public spaces in social housing.  Here, she continues her exploration of the public realm with a look at the yards and courtyards of Santiago.

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In a second scale of the public realm was the semi-private spaces of yards and courtyards. These spaces were found in university buildings such as the UDP School of Architecture where an interior courtyard beckoned one into the building from the street, and in the spaces between the social housing in one of the poorest neighborhoods in northeast Santiago. In the case of the former, the open-air courtyard and the access provided to a roof garden integrates out of door spaces for all in the community. These spaces were used for maker spaces, messy spaces, and socializing spaces. Of course this is easier in the climate of Santiago than a place like Seattle, but nonetheless the importance of finding ways to incorporate safe and welcoming out of door spaces in our buildings and neighborhoods seems worth the creative efforts it requires. It was the courtyards in the social housing that were a real source of inspiration- here in a community of extremely “efficient” housing, about 300 -600 sq feet per family, the out of door shared spaces provided a living room for the immediate families. In one that we visited roses, geraniums, and jasmine grew in neatly defined flower beds while the primary area was a swept yard, clean and welcoming. Talking with a resident it was obvious the courtyard was a source of pride and joy. It was not big, and it was shared with 12 households and yet it was a place where in the midst of a zone where gang fights were common and trash piles up on the streets, this clear, swept, flowered landscape was a respite and a shared resource.

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A similar need for diverse out of door spaces throughout Santiago was met in multiple ways throughout the city creating a remarkable urban landscape. Along the now polluted river of Mapucho, there is a river promenade often expanding to become a full fledged park with playgrounds, fountains, and benches. On the ancient volcanic hills parks were built that allow one to see the city from above- some very formally such as San Cristobal, others more informally such as Castillo Hildago and St. Lucia. Eating out of doors is common throughout the city- whether on a terrace or spilling onto the sidewalk or picnicking in the park- drinking was allowed or at least tolerated as well making for a dynamic public comprised of young, old, active, contemplative, boisterous, and romantic. When the bicyclists and runners took over many of the broad streets on a Sunday morning, the old city could be experienced as a broad and generous urban landscape. Tree lined avenues marked the major boulevards while a diversity of street trees, flower boxes, and hedges added life and vitality to the smaller streets and pedestrian paths. On the latter, it was the generosity of the pedestrian spaces that also nurtured the public realm – whether the closed streets (what we call the pedestrian malls) or the passageways or the plazas, these landscapes encouraged the sharing city. Santiago was an impressive urban landscape – generally vibrant and yes messy, yes chaotic, and yes green and alive with a public realm just as dynamic.

Social Housing and the Public Realm

We continue our series of blog posts from our Runstad Center Affiliate Fellows class of 2015, who recently traveled to Santiago, Chile, and Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil.  Here, Thaisa Way explores the important role of public spaces in social housing. 

As a landscape and urban historian, I was thrilled to serve this year as a 2015 Runstad Affiliate Fellow. This trip to Chile and Brazil l has offered the opportunity to explore the design, use, and changes in public landscapes as integral contributors to the urban landscape. I have tried to pay close attention to the ways in which the public realm is fostered or challenged by the spatial character of public landscapes from the street to the plaza, from the park to the courtyard, from the front stoop to the park bench.


When discussing social housing in most cities, more often than not the focus is on the architecture of the building, perhaps the quality of construction, and the amenities of the living areas, from electricity to internet. What works and doesn’t work is evaluated within these parameters of analysis. However, if one visits social housing as we did in Santiago Chile, the role of the public realm becomes critically evident. The public realm of streets and sidewalks as out of door shared spaces are the common living areas for many in the community. They are where informal economies happen, where socializing is enjoyed, and where community is built, over time and space. The quality of the space determines whether the space fosters community or deters it- by offering safe spaces, by responding and meeting the needs of community members, and by offering diversity of experience.

They can often determine whether a community can come together. And yet it is this same space that is often of least interest to those developing social housing. In the community we visited, I was glad to see that at least some basic infrastructure was provided from curbed sidewalks to minimal set back at corners to allow for small gatherings. Small parks were also defined on the ground although the amenities were few. In downtown Santiago the infrastructure was more robust- with wide sidewalks, many plazas, and a fair number of public gardens and parks- almost every one with a playground for children carefully and thoughtfully integrated into the space. There is space for vendors and other public events to occur and on Sunday our last day, I had the delight to see many of the main boulevards shut down to cars and taken over by bicycle riders and runners of all ages. The houses and apartments in Chile are small for those in the lower income levels as well as the middle class – an important point being that Chile may be the first country in America to house 100% of its residents – thus the public realm is important – as space to breathe and space for community.